3.5 out of 5 stars
A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.
Most people have heard of MI5 and MI6 and even when they were officially denied for years, people knew why existed. GCHQ is the third part of our intelligence services and even though they have been around for 100 years, very few knew about them or what they did. When they did emerge from the shadows after the terrorist attacks in America and England they were still very circumspect about revealing any operational details.
A large number of people still haven’t really heard of them, though a large number of people are aware of the efforts during World War 2 in taking the work that the Polish did and breaking the Enigma codes of the Nazis. There were thousands of people involved in this process but one of two have become household names, Alan Turing and Tommy Flowers. Thankfully it isn’t too heavy on the Bletchley Park years. They do get a chapter of their own, but the emphasis is on all of their histories so there were things that I learnt about that I had never come across before.
Ferris begins the book way back in the 1840s tracing the origins of British efforts to intercept and break coded messages from those that were perceived as the enemy and to maintain the control we had over our global empire. It was a messy process though and each service undertook its own way of doing it. It would take a war to focus the attention from piecemeal collection to a department that is a central point for all its consumers of intelligence. This was to become the GC&CS. They shared a building with MI6 at one point and were under the secret umbrella of the Foreign Office.
In between the wars their prolific output of intercepted and broken transmissions of a huge number of countries never ceased. At one point there were thousands of messages being analysed. Germany was not of the priority list for most of that time, however, that would begin to change as they realised that Germany was in discussion with Italy and Japan and developing secret relationships with as yet unknown intents. Those would soon be revealed and the world would plunge into another war.
The amazing work in World War Two gave the allied powers great insight into the way that the Axis powers were thinking. Of all the chapters it is probably the most critical of the work that was completed. Post-war the goalposts changed dramatically and an ally in the war became enemy number one. The cold war had arrived and would shape world history for the next four and half decades. It was a time of close cooperation between America and the UK and other members of the five eyes network. There are chapters on the events in Palestine, Indonesia, the move out to Cheltenham and the rise in computers for codebreaking and of course the advent of the internet age along with all the positives and negatives that it has brought.
This is a fairly comprehensive guide to the history of GCHQ. However, being the official history there are no revelatory bits in it, rather it is the sanitised and unredacted version that portrays the organisation is mostly good light. I did have a couple of issues with it. The timeline that Ferris has chosen to use is different to the one I would have preferred. He has looked at the way that they changed in response to different world events, the cold war, the Indonesian conflict, the Falklands War. My preference would have been to take it a decade at a time which I feel would give a better flavour of the way that demands on their skills were shifting as world events unfolded. There is almost nothing on the way that they do things, I wasn’t expecting it in the book to be honest, but it would have been nice to read a little on the techniques and methods they use. He does mention traffic analysis a number of times, which looks at how people send messages and can derive an enormous amount of intelligence from that. It might not be for everyone as it can be a bit dry at times. I have read the official histories of the other secret services, Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 by Christopher M. Andrew and MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service, 1909-1949 by Keith Jeffery and it felt that those authors had a wider scope to critically analyse the activities that those agencies had done over the years.